Riding Giants directed by Stacy Peralta, written by Peralta and Sam George, produced by Agi Orsi, with Laird Hamilton, Greg Noll and Jeff Clark. 102 minutes. A Forever Films/Studiocanal production. A Mongrel Media release. Opens Friday (August 6). Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
If you'd said "surfing" to me last week, I would have flashed to a sunset-toned aloha shirt on which the words "Hang ten, dude!" were printed in a swirly font, sported by a frosted-and-tipped troglodyte with too-white teeth. Mention surfing now and I get all dreamy about the elemental beauty of one individual soul in communion with the mighty ocean.
Thank you, Stacy Peralta.
In 2001, Peralta made skateboarding intelligible to the masses with his autobiographical documentary Dogtown And Z-Boys. He depicted the early days of modern skateboarding in the 1970s as a sort of macho Neverland in which a gang of rebellious young kids playing in abandoned schoolyards and swimming pools invented a whole new sport.
The film's accomplishment was that it made you feel the sheer pleasure of it all.
With Riding Giants he does the same - and then some - for big-wave surfing. The film gives a history of the sport, focusing on three surfing pioneers who conquered successively bigger waves.
The first, Greg Noll, participated in a surfers' Camelot in the 50s, living in an abandoned Quonset hut on a Hawaiian beach with a dozen other guys. In 1957, he led the charge to surf the massive waves of Waimea Bay on Hawaii's north shore.
The second pioneer, Jeff Clark, discovered Mavericks, a cold, rocky spot near San Francisco with 20-foot waves, and surfed it alone for 15 years before he was able to convince anyone to join him.
The third, Laird Hamilton, comes across like big-wave surfing's messiah: adopted by a champion surfer as a small boy, he more or less grew up in the ocean, setting a world speed-sailing record at age 22 and becoming a big-wave legend. Twelve years ago, he invented tow-in surfing, using a Jet Ski to drag surfers out to really enormous waves.
All very interesting, but any sports documentary worth its salt can make athletes into icons. Two elements set this one apart.
The first is the photography. Surfing and Super 8 caught on at around the same time, so there's an impressive amount of documentation of the early days. More recently, surf cinematography has blossomed into a full-fledged art as photographers paddle out on boogie-boards and dangle from helicopters to film giant waves from the inside.
The second factor that helps Riding Giants transcend its genre is its analysis. What, Peralta asks, does big-wave surfing mean? Why would someone devote a life to something so risky, and so apparently fruitless?
The same thing, he implies, that inspires people to devote years to illuminating manuscripts or studying particle physics.
Riding Giants places surfing at the intersection of exploration and religion. The sport offers nothing except exhilaration and its own seductive perfectibility. The film depicts it as a communion, an all-consuming meditation. It's the drive to achieve, stripped bare.
Peralta reduces all the variables of human endeavour to one simple but engrossing act, and then inspects absorption, ambition and drive in their pure forms.
There I go again, getting all dreamy.